23 August 2020

Beautiful Children by Charles Bock

I was really excited to read this book based on how much I loved Bock's Alice & Oliver last year. Beautiful Children is Bock's first and highly acclaimed novel and I had really high expectations for it. I'll just be up front in saying it didn't hold a candle to Alice & Oliver, and I'm not even super sure I enjoyed it at all. 

Beautiful Children is about a teenage boy named Newell who goes out with his friends one night and doesn't come home. The perspective switches between each of Newell's parents and the group of friends Newell was out with that night. There are a LOT of characters and a lot of the book's format reminded me of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad which I actually stopped reading because I didn't like it THAT much. However, I really, really, liked the parts written from the perspective of Newell's parents. Those parts alone inspired me to push forward and were very much in the same vein of Alice & Oliver.

Bock has this really beautiful, realistic way of writing about the nuance of intimacy. Both of the marriages he's written in his books have characters that love each other deeply but also hate each other. Lincoln and Lorraine are Newell's parents and the evolution of their marriage, both before and after Newell goes missing, is fascinating. I could have, and would have preferred, the entire book be just focused on them. 

No matter how goddamn miserable Lorraine's unhappiness made him or what an awful burden her unhappiness was, no matter how many times he lashed out and shoved his foot in his mouth (asking her to please, please, please stop being such a cunt), the simple heart of things was that his wife remained the sun around which his universe orbited."

As time passes Lincoln and Lorraine handle Newell's disappearance differently. Lincoln wants their marriage to recover, even suggests having another baby. The couple begins sleeping apart, Lincoln becomes addicted to porn, and despite wanting to be patient with Lorraine he grows more and more frustrated by their disconnect. Lorraine is totally consumed by Newell. She spends all her free time watching videos of him and volunteering with the missing person network in hopes she'll find a lead of some sort. 

Now her child did not call, did not let her know he was alive. Silence held the limitless depths of torture for Lorraine; silence was its own hell, its own purgatory, the definitive confirmation of Lorraine's shortcomings as a parent, the final result of every obnoxious trait she had ever let slide, the character deficiencies she had not been able to control. Had she been overprotective? Too permissive? Had she given the boy too much attention? Not enough?"

Both of them spend so much time in their own heads recounting every moment up to his going missing and wondering if they could have done something differently. Part of the disconnect between the couple is that Lorraine didn't think Newell should go out with that group of friends that night but Lincoln convinced her to ease up. Despite this being a textbook good cop-bad cop parenting scenario, your kid going missing afterwards would definitely heighten the animosity. Revisionist history plays a major part of the story.

Charles Bock



Something that stuck with me from a Joan Didion novel I read years ago is that in grieving everyone thinks of the first two weeks- the funeral, the friends and family bringing food, etc. Nobody thinks of the months afterwards when people stop coming by. I thought of that when I read Bock's writing here:

Yet they had tenderness, those small private moments: the afternoon they'd successfully gotten Lorraine's parents onto their flight back home, for example. And the morning Lincoln's dad had packed up his camper and hugged his daughter-in-law. After he was gone, they'd been able to sit at the kitchen table and pick over a tray of banana bread that someone had dropped off, just sit there and wait for the next pot of coffee to brew, exhaling as much as possible. Being with each other. Being there for each other."

Eventually, shitty as it is, people just move on. Bock discusses how over a million teenagers go missing in America each year, and of them over 200 thousand won't return home ever. These stats are crazy high and often leave no clarity for the parents who can't be sure if something has happened to their kid or if their kid voluntarily ran away. This would definitely be one of the hardest parts, both from a closure and from a public empathy standpoint. I really enjoyed Lorraine's take below:

In her better moments Lorraine could see her friends were trying, they wanted to help, were as sympathetic as they were capable of being. But they were human, after all... after almost five months, the police had officially categorized Newell's case as one of voluntary flight. This was subject to change, obviously. Yet a logical mind could not help but think there must have been reasons. Reasons for the classification. Reasons why he left. Unhappy adolescents have untold ways of expressing unhappiness without leaving home, after all. Millions of them do it every day. There had to be something more here. And no matter how well meaning her friends may have been, Lorraine knew precisely where the fingers were pointed."

There are also a lot of great reflections on being a parent which I'll never get sick of reading. Bock writes characters with really multi-dimensional thought processes. Subjects like marriage and parenting are really closely examined in both the books of his I've read.

Really, did life come down to more? A glass of water for the woman you love. A tub of popcorn for your kid? Was it the stronger man who ordered everyone around and in the process pleased not even himself, or the man who satisfied those around him and in the process was satisfied?"

Overall, I loved half of this book and barely even skimmed the other. I could have read an entire book on Lincoln and Lorraine but the rest of the sections were lost on me. I know it's a shame because the book is so highly regarded that the sections I skimmed probably had a lot of influence over the sections I liked, but I just couldn't get into them enough.

Bock only has the two books so far but I would for sure read another if he wrote one. I definitely would recommend Alice & Oliver over Beautiful Children if someone is wanting to try out his stuff. 

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